Shutting Down the World?

Around the world, the US government shutdown has produced not just bemusement but a growing sense of angst.

The Unknown Maggie

Published in the New York Review of Books September 26, 2013

Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography: From Grantham to the Falklands

by Charles Moore
Knopf, 859 pp., $35.00

1.

In the more than seven hours set aside for parliamentary tributes to Margaret Thatcher in April this year, only one member of the House of Commons dared to speak unabashedly ill of the just dead. Glenda Jackson, the actress who won two Oscars and then traded Hollywood for the lesser theater of Westminster, delivered a scorching attack on the Conservative former prime minister who had led Britain from 1979 to 1990. This anti-eulogy, more memorable than any other act in Jackson’s less than stellar political career, culminated in her response to Labour colleagues who had felt they ought to pay tribute to Thatcher’s achievement in becoming Britain’s first woman prime minister. “A woman? Not on my terms.”

Chris Ware/Hulton Archive/Getty Images - Chris Ware/Hulton Archive/Getty Images Margaret Thatcher studying a parliamentary reference book with a colleague during her first political campaign, for the seat of Dartford, Kent, January 1950

Chris Ware/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Margaret Thatcher studying a parliamentary reference book with a colleague during her first political campaign, for the seat of Dartford, Kent, January 1950

In this, the MP was picking up a thread familiar to those who lived through the turbulent Thatcher decade of the 1980s, a period that was, like Thatcher herself, both conservative and revolutionary. Veterans of that era remember the satirical TV show Spitting Image, which rendered the politicians of the moment as foam puppets. The baritone-voiced Thatcher was shown in a pinstripe suit, often barking instructions over her shoulder to quivering underlings as she stood, legs apart, at a urinal. She was seen as a man in all but name. In similar vein, Edward Heath, who never forgave Thatcher for ousting him as Tory party leader in 1975 and maintained a decades-long froideur that became known as “the incredible sulk,” once said, “It’s a matter of opinion whether you think she’s a woman or not.”

Charles Moore, the former editor of The Daily Telegraph handpicked by Thatcher to write her authorized biography—and given access to previously undisclosed papers, friends, colleagues, and, in many hours of interviews, the Lady herself—has no patience for such doubts. He insists throughout this fluent, forensically detailed first volume of what will surely become the definitive account that his subject’s “sex”—the word he prefers over the presumably too Guardian-ish “gender”—is the key to understanding her character and her career. After the Lady’s funeral he wrote:

In understanding another person, one must never neglect the obvious. Once, she took me aside and whispered, “You know what’s the matter with Helmut Kohl?” I didn’t. “He’s a German!” she revealed. I laughed at this absurdity. Yet as I review my biographical subject, I ask myself, “You know what is the key to Margaret Thatcher?” and I answer, “She was a woman.”1
He supplies ample evidence to show how Thatcher’s being a Mrs. rather than a Mr. altered the course of events. She was able to wrest the party leadership from Heath partly because he underestimated her. “He was so surprised at the idea of being challenged by a woman, and found it so distasteful and disloyal, that he could not quite face it or work out how to deal with it,” Moore writes. Later, cabinet colleagues, restless or disgruntled, found themselves similarly at sea. Officials likened Foreign Secretary Francis Pym to Lewis Carroll’s dormouse, overawed by the mighty Queen. He would become flustered and inarticulate in her presence. “Pym was probably one of those men, quite common in his generation, who hated arguing with a woman, and found Mrs. Thatcher intimidating.”

Moore speculates that even the Irish Republican Army lost its footing when confronting a female antagonist, initiating the 1981 hunger strikes by republican prisoners in Northern Ireland’s Maze jail partly because it calculated, wrongly as it turned out, that Thatcher would eventually buckle, “perhaps because she was a woman.” In 1979, her advisers recommended she refuse presidential-style TV debates in her campaign against Labour incumbent James Callaghan because, “if she had won, that would have been a woman humiliating a man, and this would have been unsettling for many male voters.”

Moore makes a persuasive case that, whatever Jackson or Heath might say, plenty of those Thatcher encountered, overwhelmingly men, struggled to see her as anything but a woman. François Mitterrand famously declared that the British leader had “the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe,” while his predecessor, the high-born Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, could not shake the memory of his children’s English nanny:

She was very correct, very tidy, with a very neat hairdo. She was efficient, religious, always opening the windows, especially when the children were ill; rather tiresome. When I met Mrs. Thatcher, I thought “She is exactly the same, exactly the same!”
For quite a few men, not all of them predictable, their most immediate response to Thatcher was sexual. After a party arranged so that the prime minister might meet a dozen leading British writers, the novelist Anthony Powell reported: “I did some market research as to whether people find her as attractive as I do and all, including Vidia [Naipaul], were in complete agreement.” Moore adds that Philip Larkin was similarly smitten, the poet remarking that “very few people are both right and beautiful.” Kingsley Amis was another admirer, while David Owen, the rather dashing doctor who had served as Callaghan’s foreign secretary, is quoted telling the journalist Brian Walden, “The whiff of that perfume, the sweet smell of whisky. By God, she’s appealing beyond belief.”

The incorrigible Tory MP, sometime government minister, and diarist Alan Clark told Moore, “I don’t want actual penetration—just a massive snog.” The author concludes that “a significant factor in Mrs. Thatcher’s political success was that quite large numbers of men fell for her.” If so, it suggests that Henry Kissinger’s oft-cited declaration that power is the greatest aphrodisiac applies equally to both men and women.

It also undermines the Glenda Jackson view of Thatcher as essentially sexless. So too does the find that probably counts as Moore’s freshest discovery, a cache of letters from the young Margaret to her older sister Muriel. These flesh out the earliest chapters, in which the bright, ambitious daughter of a provincial grocer simultaneously chafes against and learns at the feet of her strict, devoutly Methodist father. Established early is the complex and contradictory relationship Thatcher would come to have with British tradition, at once zealously deferential to it and desperate to shake off (some of) its stifling weight and usher in the new.

Still, the letters to Muriel are remarkably free of politics. Instead, even when the epic events of wartime rage around her, Margaret Roberts is usually most exercised by the pressing matter of what to wear. “Mrs. Prole has made me a smaller black velvet hat with a white ostrich feather on it and it looks very charming. Not so dressy as the green cock feathers—much more a hat for any occasion.” Moore quotes dozens of letters in this vein, also dwelling at length on his subject’s first romantic involvements, usually with men substantially older than her. Partly his motive is the understandable one of any biographer given first access to new material: he’s got it, so he wants to use it. But it’s clear he is also out to explode the Spitting Image once and for all, to confirm how very feminine was the first female prime minister.

Plenty of feminist readers will readily cede this point, insisting that what matters more is Thatcher’s record on what might loosely be called women’s rights. Here the mountain the Thatcher defender has to climb is steep. In all the cabinets she formed, scores of appointments over eleven and a half years, Thatcher only ever selected one woman to sit at the top table. That single, low-profile exception apart, Thatcher surrounded herself with men. She was regularly accused of pulling the ladder up behind her, of being unsisterly. In Thatcher’s Britain, Richard Vinen’s crisp primer on the period, we learn that the Lady was adamant that she was no feminist and once told a TV studio audience of children:

I think most of us got to our own position in life without Women’s Lib…[which], I think, has been rather strident, concentrated on things which don’t really matter and, dare I say it, being rather unfeminine. Don’t you think that? What do the girls think, don’t you think Women’s Lib is sometimes like that?2
But Moore has some unexpected, countervailing evidence. In the first stages of her career, as a candidate in the 1950s, an MP in the 1960s, and a minister in the 1970s, Thatcher repeatedly spoke as a woman, voicing what would now be deemed at least a version of feminism, albeit of the high-flying, having-it-all variety. In 1960 she wrote a newspaper article under the headline “I Say a Wife Can Do Two Jobs.” In 1952, in an article titled “Wake Up, Women,” she made the case for the “career woman,” insisting that such a person need not be “hard” or unfeminine, but would “be a much better companion at home.” She called for the removal of “the last shreds of prejudice against women aspiring to the highest places,” asking her readers, “Why not a woman Chancellor—or Foreign Secretary?” In the Commons and as a junior minister she spoke up against aspects of tax or benefit policy that discriminated against women. When she made her first extended trip to the US, she specifically asked to meet “some women members of the Congress.” Against type, Moore writes of this period that “Mrs. Thatcher was working to what would now be called an agenda, and it was a feminist one.”

If that was indeed the case, Thatcher’s feminist impulse seems to have faded as her career advanced and as she proved that she at least could succeed in a man’s world. The volume ends with a victory dinner following the Falklands conflict of 1982. There had been no room for spouses, who were invited only to after-dinner drinks in the drawing room. This meant Thatcher was the sole woman present at the main event. After her speech and the subsequent toasts, the prime minister rose in her seat and said, “Gentlemen, shall we join the ladies?” Moore thinks this “may well have been the happiest moment of her life.”

Even so, the larger point stands: Thatcher’s gender is central to her story, central to what we might call her myth. Strong female leadership exerts quite a hold on the British, and especially English, folk memory. From Boudicca to Elizabeth I to Victoria, those few women who have sat at the apex have earned a lasting place in the national consciousness, one achieved by few of their male counterparts. This myth-making habit is in full swing again now with the current queen: witness the West End hit The Audience, which projects Elizabeth II as a paragon of preternatural wisdom and constancy.

This, it seems, is what the British do to their female leaders, making it plausible that the Thatcher legend—which this book certainly does its best to foster, explicitly ranking her alongside Henry VIII, Admiral Nelson, and Winston Churchill—will endure. As Moore points out, Thatcher became, with the Falklands, “the first female war leader with executive power in the British Isles since Elizabeth I.” The all-but-state funeral granted to her, an honor accorded to no prime minister since Churchill, was an attempt to put aside the fact that she had been one of the most divisive figures in recent British history and to seal her place in the pantheon of the greatest Britons. If that effort succeeds, it will in no small part be owing to the fact that Thatcher was a woman.

 

2.

Less obviously, Margaret Thatcher’s story was also about class. In this, she broke no new barrier: Heath had come from stock similar to her own, the grocer displaced by the grocer’s daughter. But both her appeal and her impact were always bound up with class. Of course, that was most obvious when she unleashed what felt at the time like a class war, setting out to crush the trade union movement that had represented Britain’s industrial working class for more than a century. That battle, however, is beyond the reach of this volume, which ends in 1982—before the fateful, year-long strike by coal miners that would become the defining contest of Thatcherism.

Peter Marlow/Magnum Photos - Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher, London, December 1987Peter Marlow/Magnum Photos
Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher, London, December 1987

Also glimpsed rather than fully realized in this first volume is the extent to which Thatcher would become the champion of the middle class, the English (as opposed to British) middle class in particular. Her later privatizations of state-owned industries, in which shares in British Gas or British Telecom were sold to individual citizens who had never owned shares before, and her granting to tenants of public housing the right to buy their homes—all this was aimed squarely at the middle class. She called it a “crusade” to spread “popular capitalism” and it was derided by both the Labour Party and trade unions, at one end of the class spectrum, and by the aristocratic, landowning Tory old guard at the other. Speaking for the latter group, the patrician former PM Harold Macmillan would later come to the defense of the striking miners—whom he called “the best men in the world, who beat the Kaiser’s and Hitler’s armies”—and condemn the program of denationalization as akin to selling off the family silver.

All this is yet to come, but the ground is laid in this first book. Moore evokes well Thatcher’s upbringing, her councilman father instilling in his daughter his shopkeeper’s ethos of hard work, frugality, and patriotism alongside regular doses of provincial, pursed-lip disapproval for those considered outside the norm. Years later she would regularly present herself as a prudent housewife, claiming to apply the same principles of middle-class common sense to the national economy as she would to a domestic budget. In this, she was not only drawing on her childhood but implicitly drawing a contrast with the cushioned, and therefore out-of-touch, landed elite that had dominated Tory politics for centuries.

The result is that class is a constant undertone in Moore’s book. Every new character is introduced with a footnote, each of these beginning with a reference to where that person went to school: not university, but the school he or she attended as a child. This is doubly telling. First, that such information is included at all speaks volumes about the place of class in British life and schooling’s role as a measure of it. (Biographers of US presidents would not even think to mention such a thing about their story’s minor players.) Second, the pattern is striking. We soon see that the overwhelming majority of the diplomats, mandarins, and Conservative politicians Thatcher encountered were educated at exclusive, fee-paying schools: Eton, Harrow, Sherborne, Rugby, Winchester. Usually it was only her Labour enemies who went to lower-status, state-funded schools. Accordingly, the second chapter of the book is entitled “Scholarship Girl,” putting Margaret Roberts exactly in her place: talented enough to break through on her merits, but needing subsidy to compensate for her lowly origins.

This matters beyond its value as social anthropology. It partly explains Thatcher’s success. She had a drive lacking in the languid, complacent Tory men she sought to overtake. She surpassed all rivals in 1975 partly because she, unlike them, did not believe she was born to rule: she knew she had to earn it, through effort and force of personality. If many professional women believe they must be twice as good as any man to advance, then the scholarship girl knew she had to be twice as good again.

Class added an extra layer of tension to her dealings with her own party. The battle of Wets versus Dries loomed large in her first term, pitting those who sought government intervention and spending to combat recession against the fiscal hawks. It ran partly on class lines. Wets looked to the aristocratic Macmillan or the gentleman farmer Jim Prior; Dries included the new breed of Conservative, self-made men from the suburbs. (Viewers of Downton Abbey will be familiar with the difference: Lord Grantham is a classic Tory Wet, the super-rich newspaper proprietor Richard Carlisle is an archetypally Dry Thatcherite.) High Tory resentment at taking orders from a Grantham shopkeeper’s daughter bubbled up at intervals, rarely expressed more eloquently than by the minister (and son-in-law of Winston Churchill) Lord Soames, who complained after his dismissal “that he would have sacked his gamekeeper with more courtesy than Mrs. Thatcher had shown him.”

Intriguingly, Moore tells us, for some it was Thatcher’s class, rather than simple anticommunism, that explained her attachment to the United States. Shortly after Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands, Alan Clark told Tory backbench colleagues he was sure the PM would be robust in the islands’ defense. “Don’t bet on that, Alan,” one replied. “She is governed only by what the Americans want. At heart she is just a vulgar, middle-class Reaganite.”

 

3.

If her gender and her class, both potential liabilities, were crucial factors in her ascent, they do not tell the whole story. It helped that she had a spouse in Denis Thatcher who was both compliant and rich, but it was the nature and power of her personality that did much to propel her to the top. The defining traits in Moore’s portrait are a relentlessness that made her both formidable and unbearable and, more unexpectedly, a pragmatism that runs counter to the Iron Lady persona she did so much to cultivate.

On the first count, her stamina became the stuff of legend, starting with her famous need to sleep no more than three or four hours a night. Her work rate was prodigious, exemplified by her ability to plow through box after box of state papers—putting a wiggly line under proposals she disliked, scrawling fierce rebuttals in the margin beside those she despised. Often powered by whisky, she could keep going into the small hours, better briefed than her interlocutors on almost every topic. (Part of her success running the Falklands war, Moore suggests, is that, lacking military experience or knowledge, Thatcher was forced, for once, to defer to the wisdom of others.)

But this ferocious determination could shade easily into outright aggression, directed most often at those around her. She once burst into a late-night meeting of her chancellor and his officials and proceeded to berate him, the most senior man in her government, as his aides looked on. She was, a witness recalls, “quite full of whisky.” In 1981, the head of her policy unit, John Hoskyns, sent her a memorandum whose candor was so unforgiving that surely no prime minister, or president for that matter, has ever received one to match it. Entitled “Your Political Survival,” it read:

You break every rule of good man-management. You bully your weaker colleagues. You criticise colleagues in front of each other and in front of their officials. They can’t answer back without appearing disrespectful, in front of others, to a woman and to a Prime Minister. You abuse that situation…. This demoralisation is hidden only from you. People are beginning to feel that everything is a waste of time…. You have an absolute duty to change the way you operate.
It is to Thatcher’s credit that Hoskyns survived in his post, if only for another year. But the impression his memo conveys is buttressed by other examples of what one would charitably call a lack of emotional intelligence on Thatcher’s part. It’s not only that, as Moore writes, she could be “intensely annoying,” inconsiderate, excessively demanding, and too focused on the short term. There was something else missing. Thatcher was famously deficient in humor, needing the jokes in her own speeches explained, and Moore sketches a few strokes in a similar direction even if he does not stand back and explicitly assess the picture he has painted. He describes Thatcher’s “literal-mindedness,” how she was perplexed by metaphorical expressions such as “look before you leap” and confused by the play of children, remarking on one occasion: “What a funny gesture. I wonder what it means.”

Some of Thatcher’s contemporary devotees would doubtless find such observations easier to stomach than the copious evidence that their heroine was—whisper it—a pragmatist. Revered now as an unswerving ideologue, iron in the defense of freedom and markets and against totalitarianism and terror, she was in fact a highly flexible politician if the situation so demanded. She could not have stayed at the top for so long if she had been anything else.

So, for all the bluster about never talking to terrorists, she did negotiate with the IRA. Even in death she remains the poster girl for Tories hostile to the European Union, yet her early pro-Europeanism is undeniable and documented. She was, at various stages, open to diplomatic solutions to the Falklands crisis. Most unexpectedly of all, she was a pioneer on climate change, making what is regarded as the first major speech on the topic by any world leader.

Such pragmatism informed her relationship with Ronald Reagan. That there was a rapport between them, there is no doubt: not yet president or even the Republican nominee, he was the first foreign politician to call to congratulate Thatcher on her victory in May 1979. (The Downing Street switchboard did not put him through.) But when support for him ran counter to her own interests, she resisted. They nearly fell out over Reagan’s desire to impose sanctions on a Soviet gas pipeline in which British companies had a direct stake: for her the financial well-being of British business trumped any principled stand against communism. During the stand-off she became, reported an aide, “dismayed at how little understanding Reagan seemed to have of the issues…. He was a bear of very little brain. It was disappointing for her.”

In this way, an image that existed in two dimensions acquires a third. We learn that Thatcher could behave like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard in front of a camera, yet was uninterested in how the media portrayed her. She could be vicious to her subordinates when faced with their weakness, yet felt a “motherly” tenderness to one minister on account of his past history of depression. She had time only for work, yet continued to do the cooking for husband Denis, even in Number Ten. She was a modernizer, yet harbored distinctly unmodern attitudes toward those who were decidedly not “one of us,” to recall a pet Thatcher phrase. “You don’t expect anything decent to come from an Irishman,” she said privately.

Moore is gentle toward and admiring of his subject, accepting that “she was never drunk,” for example, but he admits too much evidence for the prosecution ever to lapse into hagiography. He has chased down every last detail of her life, correcting Thatcher’s memoirs when she got the facts wrong. This book is a testament to the value of thoroughness, a virtue the Lady would have appreciated. The footnotes alone are a source of constant interest and insight and Moore has an eye for the telling detail:

At Denis’s funeral in July 2003, when her anguish and mental confusion were such that she was not sure whether it was her husband’s or her father’s coffin in front of her, she was seen to sing all the hymns, word-perfect, without looking at the service sheet.
What is missing is that part of her record that had some Britons—not many admittedly—sipping champagne on news of her death. We hear of the inner-city riots of 1981 and her first skirmishes against the trade unions, but these are mere overture to the crashing symphony of discord yet to come. In this volume, we do not see the consequences of her campaign to rid Britain of socialism—including its mild, Labour variety—a whirlwind that left the country’s manufacturing base hollowed out and whole towns and cities broken, many of them still in pieces to this day. All of that should come in the second volume of this work, which if it matches the first will be admirable indeed. Besides, there is no particular hurry to tell that next part of the story. In Britain it is well known—for we live with its consequences every day.

 

1. Charles Moore, “Radical, Egotistical, Romantic, Innocent—the Real Margaret Thatcher,” The Daily Telegraph, April 19, 2013.

2. Thatcher’s Britain: The Political and Social Upheaval of the Thatcher Era (London: Simon and Schuster, 2009), p. 26.

Protecting Powerful Men

Given what he had heard in his courtroom, Sir Brian Leveson, the judge appointed by British Prime Minister David Cameron to investigate misdeeds by the press, could plausibly have delivered damning judgements about the police, politicians—including Cameron and his ministers—and, especially, News Corporation and the Murdoch family who run it. Yet much of the Leveson report’s immense length is taken up by setting out the facts rather than apportioning blame.

America Forgets the World

Most of the time, the world outside America consisted of three Is and (toward the end) a single C: the threat of a nuclear Iran, the need to stand with Israel, the wisdom of going into Iraq nearly a decade ago and of maintaining a troop presence there now, and finally the menace of job-stealing, currency-manipulating China. Europe surfaced just once, and then only in a list of regions where the US had strong alliances, alongside Africa and Asia. India, home to a billion people and a rising power, was mentioned not at all.

The Republicans: Behind the Barricades

A dispatch for the New York Review of Books from the Republican National Convention in Tampa, August 2012

The Case for Robot Romney

What if your natural self is not that appealing to the voters, what indeed if your natural self is not all that natural? This is the conundrum confronting the team advising Mitt Romney. From the hordes of journalists, pundits, and armchair experts gathered here in Tampa, the campaign has received the same unsolicited advice: it needs to “humanize” the Republican presidential nominee, formally anointed as such on Tuesday, to present what the National Journal calls his “warm, fuzzy side.” But this might just be the time when a stiff personality could work.

An Exclusive Corner of Hebron

An Exclusive Corner of Hebron

Jonathan Freedland

freedland_1-022312.jpg

If you exclude Jerusalem, Hebron has the largest population of
any Palestinian city in the West Bank. It is, along with Nablus, a
commercial center, and what serves today as its thronging market square
brims with life and trade, noise and fumes. There are stores selling
groceries and electronics, as well as sidewalk stalls consisting of
simple tables laid out with fruit and vegetables, toys, trinkets, and
children’s clothes. Those are concentrated especially by the bus
station, with its yellow public buses, and by the ranks of taxis and
private minibuses, many of them heading north to Bethlehem. Palestinian
police, in Palestinian uniforms, direct the traffic. If you walked no
further, you would assume that Hebron, home to an estimated 175,000
Palestinians, is a thriving Arab city.

Until, that is, you got
close to the crossing point that marks the de facto border between the
Palestinian-controlled 80 percent of the city, known as H1, and the
Israeli-controlled remainder, known as H2. Not everyone can cross. Since
the start of the second intifada, Israeli citizens have been forbidden
by their own government from entering H1, just as they are barred from
entering the wider Palestinian-controlled Area A of the West Bank. The
ruling is based on security grounds, Israel concluding that visible
Israelis, especially settlers, would likely be attacked and the Israel
Defense Forces insisting that it can guarantee the security of Israeli
citizens only in those areas it controls.

Hebron-Map-022312

For those who are permitted, however, crossing the line that
separates H1 from H2 is to cross into another realm entirely. For H2,
which consists of a substantial eastern chunk of the city, combined with
what looks on the map like a wide, stubby finger jabbing westward,
includes the historic heart of Hebron. This strip, the finger on the
map, might account for no more than 3 percent of the total geographic
area of Hebron, but it is here that you find the sites that have made it
a place revered by both Muslims and Jews, indeed ranked by Jews
alongside Jerusalem, Tiberias, and Safed as one of Judaism’s four holy
cities. It is here too that you find an eerie, emptied ghost town whose
once-thriving markets stand shuttered and deserted, its Palestinian
population subject to a policy of separation and restriction that makes
the city the place where Israel’s forty-four-year occupation of the West
Bank shows its harshest face.

You can hear the battle for supremacy between the approximately
30,000 Arabs and eight hundred Jewish settlers who live in
Israeli-controlled H2 even before you see it. On the crisp, bright
morning I visited, there was Hassidic-style klezmer music playing loudly
from the Gutnick Center, an event hall that welcomes Jewish visitors
from around the world and especially the United States, offering both
refreshments and tours, its website reassuring any nervous customers
that “all buses are bullet-proof.” Minutes later, those melodies of old
Ashkenazi Europe were joined by the traditional muezzin, singing the
Muslim call to prayer. The two tunes continued, at full volume, filling
the ancient square with dueling, discordant noise. This is Hebron’s
so-called loudspeaker war.

Any visit usually begins at the Tomb of
the Patriarchs, the magnetic core of Hebron’s religious power. Judaism
deems the site, recorded in the Bible as the Cave of Machpela, purchased
by Abraham, as second in sacred value only to the Temple Mount, that
part of ancient Jerusalem on which the First and Second Temples were
built. Inside are caskets said to contain the remains of Jacob, Isaac,
and Abraham himself, revered as a forefather by the three ancient
monotheistic faiths.

As the Jews of Hebron remind visitors,
including the busload of African Christians that pulls in, for seven
hundred years Jews were barred by the city’s Mameluke, Ottoman, British,
and Jordanian rulers from entering this holy site; they were allowed to
ascend only the first seven steps toward it. In 1967, when Hebron and
the rest of the West Bank were conquered by Israel in the Six-Day War,
Jews could at last walk the eighth step, and the fifty-odd more, and
enter.

Today, there are separate entrances to the
tomb for Jews and for Muslims. But what is more striking is the road
approaching the site: it is divided according to nationality, with three
quarters of the thoroughfare available to Israelis, and the narrow
remainder set aside for Palestinians. Concrete blocks separate the two
parts. The Israelis are given the greater portion because they are
allowed to drive down this road, a right denied to Palestinians.

On
Israeli military maps, this shows up as a green road, which means that
no Palestinian cars are allowed. Blue is for those streets where no
Palestinian cars are allowed and no Palestinian shops are permitted to
open. Then there are roads that are more restricted still: on those, no
Palestinian is allowed to set foot. The Israel Defense Forces refer to
such a road as a tzir sterili, literally a sterile road.

Most of the H2 Palestinians unlucky enough to have their homes on a tzir sterili
have had their front doors sealed shut. To leave, they have to use a
back door, which often means climbing out onto the roof and down via a
series of ladders: inconvenient for those who are young and fit,
difficult if not impossible for those who are old or infirm. Later I
will see an elderly man, a bag of cement resting on his shoulder,
walking with a boy I take to be his grandson. When he reaches a-Shuhada
Street, once the main artery through central Hebron and a “sterile road”
since 2000, he turns off and begins to ascend a steep series of
rough-hewn steps, necessary in order to walk around rather than on the
street. This will lead him through a series of unpaved, dusty paths, a
longer, indirect alternative route to a-Shuhada Street. This is so
neither his feet nor those of the little boy will touch the forbidden
road—ensuring it remains sterili.

The street is lined with
what used to be shops, now permanently closed behind green metal
shutters. They are all covered by graffiti. In a short walk I see “Arabs
out!” and “Death to the Arabs” as well as the less familiar “You have
Arabs, you have mice,” which has been painted over but is still legible.
So too is “Arabs to the crematorium,” close to the Muslim cemetery.
(One notorious message, daubed in English but covered over a few years
ago, read “Arabs to the gas chambers.”) The clenched fist symbol of the
Kach party of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, the founder of the Jewish
Defense League once ostracized as a fascist, appears in several places.
But the most recurrent image is also the most shocking. It is the Star
of David. Utterly familiar to Jewish eyes, it nevertheless is a shock to
see that symbol—associated with Judaism itself and with the long
history of Jewish suffering—used as a crude declaration of dominance,
used, in fact, as an insult.

We walk down the center of the road.
There is no need to use the sidewalk because the place is empty, like an
abandoned film set. My guide, Yehuda Shaul, a kippa-wearing, black-bearded Orthodox Jewish Israeli—who will later mutter the traditional bracha,
or blessing, before taking a bite of a sandwich—is intimately familiar
with Hebron, having served two extended tours of army duty in the city,
spanning the second intifada, first as a regular soldier in 2001–2002
and then again as a commander and company sergeant in 2003. Indeed, he
was on patrol when IDF engineers sealed up those front doors, welding them shut, in 2001.

He
recalls too the instructions he had not to touch the settlers, who were
subject to Israeli law and therefore under the jurisdiction of the
Israeli police rather than the army, even though he could see that they
were engaged in a campaign of harassment of the local population,
throwing stones, cutting water pipes, or severing electricity cables. A
soldier has testified to the Breaking the Silence organization—founded
by IDF reservists
determined to alert their fellow Israelis and Jews around the world to
the everyday reality of military occupation—that a sign hung on the
briefing wall of his unit, spelling out their mission: “To disrupt the
routine of the inhabitants of the neighborhood,” whether through house
searches, physical checks, or sudden, surprise checkpoints established
in apparently arbitrary locations.

Shaul is not in uniform today
but is here as part of his work with Breaking the Silence. He is armed
with “before” photographs of central Hebron, dating from 1999, that show
a fruit market bustling with people, with produce, and with life. The
“after” shot is right in front of me: the very same place, now desolate
and silent. What used to be here has been relocated to H1, some of it,
at any rate. The teeming marketplace I saw on the other side of the
crossing point is in fact part of Bab a-Zawiya, once just a neighborhood
of Hebron, now its substitute downtown. Some of those traders in Bab
a-Zawiya used to live and work in what is now H2. They once owned shops.
They now sell their wares on tables.

Nor is this a
mere impression. A study by the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem
shows that 1,014 housing units—apartments or houses—have been abandoned
by their occupants, some 42 percent of the total in this core part of
Hebron. One estimate suggests that this amounts to eight or nine
thousand people who found that life under such restrictions was no
longer viable or bearable. Eventually, I see one of the rare people who
have held on, remaining inside H2. An Arab woman is hanging laundry on
her balcony on a-Shuhada Street. She is caged on all sides by a mesh of
metal wire, including above her head. This is not because of any law or
regulation; she has put herself in what looks like a small chicken coop
for her own protection, to avoid the stones that would otherwise be
thrown at her by settlers.

The roof of the cage is, indeed,
weighed down with stones. B’Tselem, which has given cameras to some of
the Palestinians of Hebron, has posted several videos showing settlers,
including young children, throwing stones at the Arabs in their
midst—unrestrained by the Israeli soldiers standing close by. One
particularly disturbing film shows a female settler repeatedly hissing
the word sharmuta, or whore, at her female Arab neighbor.

Close by is the chicken market, now behind tall concrete slabs. Next comes the old bus station, now in service as an IDF
base that doubles as the home of six settler families who have moved
in. And then, around the corner, behind a rusting gate, is a scrapyard,
filled with junk, weeds, and coils of barbed wire. Shaul produces a
photograph that reveals that this dumping ground used to be Hebron’s
jewelry market. (A few individual jewelers now ply their trade in
Palestinian-controlled H1, but the market itself has not been
reconstituted.) On the other side of the street is a yeshiva.

It
is this—Jews and Arabs living next to each other—that makes central
Hebron exceptional, at least outside Jerusalem. While Jewish settlements
are found throughout the West Bank, they are usually on hilltops
adjacent to, or overlooking, Palestinian towns and villages. But in this
part of central Hebron, they are found within, in four clusters
referred to as settlements but that often amount to just a few houses
and buildings surrounded by Palestinians. Three of them are on or just
off a-Shuhada Street; the fourth is a short walk away.

And so you
only have to take a few steps away from the emptied fruit market to walk
into Avraham Avinu—literally, Abraham, Our Father—the largest of the
Jewish enclaves in Hebron, home to some forty families. Inside it is
another country. The walls are made of a scrubbed, flat stone that
contrasts with the dust and age outside. There is a children’s
playground, with young Orthodox mothers, their heads covered, playing
with their kids, the latter apparently unaware that there are
approximately six hundred IDF
soldiers around, chiefly for their protection. There is a rack for
bicycles and in the air the distinct aroma of chicken soup. It could be
any of the more well-heeled neighborhoods of West Jerusalem. There are
plaques everywhere, a sight not uncommon in Jerusalem—except almost all
of these are in memory of people killed by “Arab terrorists.” The
benefactors thanked are Jewish families from New York, London, and
elsewhere.

This division of Hebron into H1 and H2 was the result
of the Hebron Protocol of January 1997, signed by Yasser Arafat and
Binyamin Netanyahu, then in his first term as prime minister. Special
arrangements were deemed necessary for the sake of the few hundred
Jewish settlers inside Hebron, whom Israel believed it had to protect
with its own forces. In the years since, protection has come to mean a
series of ever more stringent steps to keep the Jews and Arabs apart by
restricting the Palestinians’ ability to move within H2. Every time
there has been a terror attack on the Jewish settlers—the most notorious
being the murder of a ten-month old baby, Shalhevet Pass, by a sniper’s
bullet in 2001—the settlers have demanded and usually won either a
further tightening of Palestinian movement or Israeli state permission
for expansion or both. Bit by bit, central Hebron has been emptied, the
Palestinians hemmed in ever more claustrophobically, so that the
settlers can move freely and without fear, their safety guaranteed by
the IDF.

It
is probably fruitless to attempt to define the beginning of this
situation. For the Jewish community of Hebron, the last hundred years
are a mere interlude, the decisive event coming several thousand years
ago when Abraham made his purchase of Machpela. Still, many light upon
1929 and the massacre of sixty-seven Jews by Arabs in Hebron as the
pivotal date. They believe that that traumatic event reveals an
essential truth about the conflict with the Palestinians: that the Arab
objection to Jews predates, and therefore has little to do with, the
establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 or the occupation of the
West Bank in 1967. To the settlers, the 1929 massacre shows that the
Arabs have a murderous intolerance of Jews in their midst. If a heavy
military presence and onerous security measurements are necessary, then
that is why.

Until 1929, Jews had lived in significant numbers in
the city. In the immediate aftermath of the massacre, British forces
evacuated the surviving Jews to Jerusalem, though a year later the Arab
leaders of the city invited them back. Some thirty or so families
accepted the invitation, then left again during the disturbances of
1936. One Jew, a milkman, is said to have stayed on until 1947, but
after that, for two decades, there were none. Still, when Hebron was
captured by Israeli forces in 1967 it was, say the settlers, only
natural that Jews should return. Their presence there now is, they
insist, no foreign, colonial enterprise, but rather a homecoming,
delayed for too long.

The manner of the return is certainly
susceptible to mythmaking. For the first Passover after Hebron’s
“liberation,” a group of eighty-eight Orthodox Jews, led by the
charismatic Rabbi Moshe Levinger, checked into the city’s Arab-owned
Park Hotel to hold a seder. They stayed and refused to leave.
Eventually, Israel’s Labor-led government suggested a compromise: the
squatters would be allowed to move into a nearby IDF
base where homes would be built for them. Thus was born Kiryat Arba,
now a city of more than seven thousand next to Hebron, the first step in
the entire West Bank settlement project. Levinger would go on to be a
founder of Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful), later serving jail time
for shooting dead a Palestinian store owner. But Hebron was where he
took his first stand.

His heirs today do not feel any need to
justify the effects of their presence on the Palestinians who live in
H2. On the contrary, the Jewish community in Hebron regards itself as
the victim. “People say there’s apartheid here,” says David Wilder,
their New Jersey–born spokesman. “I agree, there is—but it’s not against
them, it’s against us.” He points to the fact that the Casbah, inside
H2, is a closed military zone and therefore off-limits, save for a few
hours on the Sabbath, to Jews. He argues that, in effect, Jews have
access to only 3 percent of the city—where the Israeli security presence
is sufficiently intense—while Arabs have access to all the rest. Sure,
he concedes, there’s one street, maybe a kilometer, a kilometer and a
half, that the Arabs can’t walk on. Does he mean a-Shuhada Street? “I
don’t know what they call it. We call it David Ha’Melech [King David]
Street.” That road used to be open, until the second intifada, says
Wilder—in fact, save for a few months the road was barred to Palestinian
cars from 1994—”but they started shooting at us” from the nearby hills.

Still,
he insists, he and his fellow Jews have “never said that for us to live
here, no one else can live here,” whereas he believes that the
Palestinians will permit no Jewish presence in Hebron in a future
Palestinian state. It is the Jews who are the tolerant ones. As for the
graffiti, he says, “We’re not particularly fond of it,” but he refuses
to condemn it, calling it an “outlet” for settler youth “frustrated by
terror attacks and the activities of the Israeli government against
them.”

Wilder’s message—that if the Palestinians stopped
threatening the settlers with violence, the restrictions could be
eased—runs counter to experience. When, for example, the US-born
Baruch Goldstein killed twenty-nine Palestinian Muslim worshipers in
the Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994, Israel imposed new restrictions—not
on the settlers but on Hebron’s Arabs. The vegetable and meat markets
were closed, and the ban on Palestinian cars on a-Shuhada Street
introduced. (It’s striking that, far from being reviled as a terrorist
and murderer in Hebron, Goldstein is buried in the Meir Kahane Memorial
Park, which comes under the auspices of the Kiryat Arba municipal
authority.)

Still, and despite the
twenty-four-hour armed protection they are given—Shaul testifies that as
a soldier his orders were very clear: “We’re here to protect the
settlers”—Hebron’s Jews appear to regard the Israel Defense Forces and
the Israeli state as their adversary. A poster in the Bab al-Khan
neighborhood in H2, emptied of all but a handful of its former Arab
residents with its gates to the Old City now sealed and bolted shut,
declares in Hebrew: “Here’s where the ghetto begins. No entry for Jews.”
Elsewhere, a spray-painted slogan denounces what it regards as the
godless state of Israel: “We have no faith in the regime of the
infidels, we follow the path of Torah.” Another seeks a regime governed
by religious law: “We want a halacha state of Judea now.” Still another urges, “Death to the traitors of the King,” the King being God.

In
this dispute, with the settlers hostile to an Israeli government that
denies them the run of Hebron in its entirety, the Palestinians are
caught in the middle. They dismiss the settlers’ suggestion that it is
only a small fraction of the city from which Palestinians are barred, a
relatively modest imposition on their lives. Issa Amro, thirty-one years
old and active in organizing nonviolent protest in Hebron, says, “H2 is
the center of the city…. All the markets were there: the vegetable
market, the fruit market, the camel market, the meat market, the
blacksmith market, all the markets were in H2. It is the heart of the
city. And if your heart is sick, your whole body will be affected.”

He
explains that the restrictions, even if applied to a superficially
narrow area, have a far-reaching effect. Families are split between H1
and H2, making it hard for relatives to see each other, especially those
who live on H2 streets barred to Palestinian cars or pedestrians. And
it has a wider impact: if you want to drive north to south through
Hebron, you have to take a long, convoluted route on congested roads.
Shaul imagines the equivalent move in Jerusalem, shutting down Jaffa
Street and the Old City. It might only account for less than 1 percent
of the municipal territory, he says, but it would include the main road
and the historic monuments. “What’s the impact that has on a city?”

Some
admit that what one sees in central Hebron is ugly, but console
themselves that it is an extreme case typical only of itself. For
others, though, Hebron is an intense, distilled version of the wider
Israeli occupation. Yehuda Shaul places himself, reluctantly, in the
latter camp. “This is a microcosm,” he tells me. “Walk here and you
understand how the West Bank functions: the separation, the land grab,
the sterile roads, the violence.” Nor does he reassure himself that
Hebron is the handiwork of a few hard-core settlers. The presence of the
IDF shatters that
delusion, as does the plaque from the Housing Ministry on the settler
building of Beit HaShisha, a seal of government approval that dates back
to 2000, when the supposedly center-left leader Ehud Barak was prime
minister. Twenty-one buses depart every weekday, more than one an hour,
from the Jewish settlements inside H2 to Jerusalem, offering cheap,
government-subsidized fares. Shaul’s grievance is not with the settlers
alone, but with the state.

For people like Shaul, proud Israeli
patriots and conscientious Jews, Hebron poses a more profound challenge
than can be captured by the bland diplomatese of “obstacles to peace”
and the like. For them it is about more than a fault line in a bitter,
territorial dispute. “What’s being done here is in the name of God and
in the name of my state,” he says, in a voice much older than his
twenty-eight years.

Shaul has become well known in Hebron. On the
steps of the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a settler spots him and shouts,
several times, that he is a traitor to his people. But there is a face
better known than his and I see it within two minutes of arriving in
Hebron. In a wheelchair, the consequence of a stroke in 2007, is a
white-haired old man in a Panama hat, being pushed by a young, devout
caregiver. He is Moshe Levinger, the man who started it all, out for his
daily dose of fresh air. I catch up and ask whether, when he holed
himself up inside the Park Hotel all those years ago, he ever imagined
it would lead to this, the center of Hebron cleared and emptied for the
sake of his fellow settlers. “No,” the rabbi says, he foresaw no such
thing. He points a finger toward the sky. “It is a blessing of God.”

All Their Flummery and Finery

In the latest episode of the podcast, Jonathan Freedland talks with Emily Greenhouse about gilded-coach celebrity in an era of austerity, the hereditary principle, and why all bets are off when it comes to Wills and Kate.

Windsor Knot

An essay for the New York Review of Books ahead of the royal wedding

Obama’s Nobel: It Makes Sense in Norway

Over the last few days a consensus has formed, on both the left and the right, that awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama was too much, too soon. Even the President’s warmest admirers were embarrassed by the honor’s prematurity, while his domestic critics seized on it much the way they had reacted to the international adulation Obama received as a candidate, when, for example, he brought more than 200,000 people onto the streets of Berlin: they saw it as evidence both of the wide-eyed, teenybopper crush foreigners have on Obama and, somehow, of the President’s own hubris. But on closer examination, the award is not the stunning surprise it first seemed. And, at least from the point of view of those who gave it, it’s not so daft either.